According to Peter Cunningham in his Hand-Book of London (1850, p. 122), it was William Holles, created baron Houghton of Houghton, Nottingham, in 1616 and Earl of Clare in 1624, who had lived in the St. Clement’s Danes parish since 1617 and who created Clare Market on his London estate. Cunningham was, however, mistaken as the first Earl of Clare was called John Holles (1564-1637). Sir William Holles (1471?–1542) was his grandfather and long dead by the time the market came into existence. Strype in his Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster of 1720 says that Clare Market is “very considerable and well served with provisions, both flesh and fish; for besides the butchers in the Shambles, it is much resorted unto by the country butchers and higglers, the market days, are Wednesdays and Saturdays.”(1)
By the nineteenth century, the reputation of the market had gone down considerably.
It is a market without a market-house; a collection of lanes, where every shop is tenanted by a butcher or greengrocer, and where the roadways are choked with costermongers’ carts. To see Clare Market at its best, it is needful to go there on Saturday evening: then the narrow lanes are crowded, then the butchers’ shops are ablaze with gas-lights flaring in the air, and the shouting of the salesman and costermonger is at its loudest. Nowhere in London is a poorer population to be found than that which is contained in the quadrangle formed by the Strand, Catherine-street, Long-acre, and Lincoln’s-inn and the new law courts. The greater portion of those who are pushing through the crowd to make their purchases for to-morrow’s dinner are women, and of them many have children in their arm. Ill-dressed, worn, untidy, and wretched, many of them look, but they joke with their acquaintances, and are keen hands at bargaining. Follow one, and look at the meat stall before which she steps. The shop is filled with strange pieces of coarse, dark-coloured, and unwholesome-looking meat. There is scarce a piece there whose form you recognise as familiar; no legs of mutton, no sirloins of beef, no chops or steaks, or ribs or shoulders. It is meat, and you take it on faith that it is meat of the ox or sheep; but beyond that you can say nothing. The slice of bacon on the next stall is more tempting, and many prefer a rasher of this for their Sunday’s dinner to the coarse meat which neither their skill in cooking nor their appliances enable them to render tender and eatable, or satisfactory to the good man who is at present drinking himself to a point of stupidity at the public-house at the corner, and spending an amount which would make all the difference in cost between the odds and ends of coarse meat and a wholesome joint. It is a relief to turn from the butchers’ shops to the costermongers’ barrows. Here herrings or mackerel, as the season may be— bought, perhaps, -a few hours before at Billingsgate —are selling at marvellously low prices, while the vegetables, equally cheap, look fresh and excellent in quality.(2)
The area with its narrow Elizabethan streets and toppling houses, overflowing with produce and people, declined gradually into what was called, the Clare Market Slum. Barton Baker called it “a murky district”, “that once notorious haunt of vice and misery”.(3) But not long after he wrote his book, a lot of the streets were razed away in one sweeping development scheme when Aldwych and Kingsway were created. For excellent posts on the reconstruction of 1901-1905, see Peter Berthoud’s blog with lots of old photos and a map of the development, here and here.
The street name Clare Market still exists, although no longer a market, but a thoroughfare through the London School of Economics buildings. The school, although basically teaching politics and economics, is known for its promotion of the arts. If you walk through the area, do not forget to look up and around you to enjoy the various artworks on display. I will show you two, but there are more!
The small elephant, baby Tembo, on the steps of the Student Service Centre is a bronze sculpture by Derrick Stephan Hudson, and one of the more than ten statues donated by the Canadian businessman Louis Odette, who studied at LSE in 1944.(4) Tembo’s mother and siblings can be found in Windsor, Ontario. If you run the sculpture slide show on the Windsor site, you may also recognise Yolanda Vandergaast’s Penguin that in London can be found across from Tembo at the entrance of Waterstone’s – where else? But there is more art than these two animals to be found around LSE.
On the corner of Clare Market and Portugal Street, above the big W logo of Waterstone’s bookshop is a mural by Harry Warren Wilson. According to the information panel “the motif represents ‘London’s river’ and illustrates subjects taught at the School”. Wilson exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1924 to 1952 and, besides making murals, also painted and worked with glass.
All in all, Clare Market is perhaps a little bit off the regular trail, but certainly worth a visit.
(1) Book 4, chapter 7, p. 119. Higglers were apparently middlemen who traded in poultry and dairy products. They bought the produce from farmers by barter, hence haggle/higgle. See here.
(2) Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dictionary of London, 1879. Online here.
(3) H. Barton Baker, The Stories of the Streets of London (1899), pp. 154-155.
(4) For an overview see here.